Arcen Games

Other => Game Development => Topic started by: x4000 on July 14, 2014, 03:54:38 PM

Title: Followup to last year's AI War postmortem (now discussing Bionic, TLF, etc).
Post by: x4000 on July 14, 2014, 03:54:38 PM

Last June I wrote a postmortem of AI War, which also wound up being a form of history of Arcen as a whole.  But now a whole year has passed, and we've released Skyward Collapse: Nihon no Mura, Bionic Dues, and The Last Federation in that time.  We also have a lot more data on Skyward Collapse, Shattered Haven, and A Valley Without Wind 2.

Rock Paper Shotgun picked up that postmortem in their Sunday Papers yesterday (they may have previously, too, but neither they nor I remember for sure or can be bothered to go back and check, so anyhow).  One of the readers who popped over to check out the postmortem, Alban, had a great followup question:
Just coming here late following RPS’ Sunday Papers. As this post mortem is one year old there’s no data for Bionic Dues.
How does it fare? Will you apply the same kind of long term free/paid support as AI War ?

I'm going to get to his question, but first some background.  And in general an updated view of the company.

AirshipEternalConceptScreenshotThe Role of Luck (A long tangent, but something I've been thinking about)

Creating any sort of game or other creative work is a bit of a funny thing, because there is a certain amount of luck involved.  There are a lot of examples from the past of great games that inexplicably didn't sell well.  I want to say System Shock 2, but I can't recall if that is correct.  There were some others along those lines.

And then there are some that are clearly the recipient of good luck, going above (sometimes even far above) what you would expect them to.  Not that they aren't good games, but that they simply were the recipient of good luck in the same way that the other games were the recipient of bad luck.  Angry Birds and Minecraft are two examples of games that are great, but that also were lucky.  AI War I also feel like was lucky, in that same sense.  I feel like Skyward Collapse was, too, frankly.

I'm getting ahead of myself a bit, but here's how I would rate our games and expansions in terms of their luck (among other factors):

What sorts of things do I mean by "luck?"  Well, we try to pick release dates that make sense for purposes of the wider market, but there is a lot of luck in that, anyway.  Bionic Dues got squashed by other releases on launch and disappeared from view before people could really evaluate it well.  The Last Federation dominated the Steam front page for days, which was partly based on the high clickthrough rates to it but also based on just being at the right place at the right time.

In terms of getting the attention of people in forums, of reviewers, of press in general, etc, there's also a luck factor.  Skill in PR/marketing, too, but also luck.  Some games we put out are loved by major reviewers or youtubers, and they tell us this privately, but then they never wind up having time to actually do a review or video, because of other titles that are more pressing in terms of their audience and what will make them money on views, etc.  Then by the time they do have time for a theoretical review, the game is old news.  That happened to Bionic Dues in multiple instances.  But for TLF, we had the opposite luck, where a lot of big names just jumped on it immediately and wrote or did a video about it immediately, rather than having a delay.

You could argue that that is partly due to the degree to which they connected with one game versus the other, and that is surely partly true, but I think that anyone who denies the role of luck in books, movies, games, and basically all creative things is kidding themselves.  You can't get lucky if you aren't prepared and actually having something worth talking about, but it is possible to do everything right and still fail.  There are indies all over the place where that is the case.  The most notable recent example of that, to me, is Source by Fenix Fire.  That game got a ton of press attention, looks gorgeous, seemed to do everything right on Kickstarter, had a hilariously modest goal for a game like that ($50k), and yet still failed to get funded.  WTF?  That's just bad luck, and something those devs need to realize and not feel too bad about.

Okay, back to the actual question.

AIWarDestroyerOfWorldsWallpaperAI War's Ongoing Performance - Solid

AI War is now somewhere north of $1.3 million, I'm not sure exactly where.  We're at over 5 years of the game being out now, and our 6th expansion is in the works for release this August.  There's not a lot to really say here, this just continues to be a strong game for us.  It's fallen a lot in terms of how big a portion of our yearly income it is, but that's mainly because of the rise of other games for us, rather than a fall of AI War itself.

Bionic Dues - Not So Hot

colour_sniper2_png_by_arcengames_d6fez36_by_cassiopeiaart-d6iirw6Bionic Dues, as noted above, was a recipient of bad luck.  It hasn't sold abysmally, it's not like Shattered Haven or Tidalis, but it just hasn't really been "discovered" yet, in a lot of senses.  Overall it's had a really solid reception, and certainly some major press.  We bungled some things with Bionic in terms of advance press, but a big part of that was the fact that we weren't really ready to show anything until the last second because the development cycle on Bionic Dues was so short.  Our "luckier" titles had longer development cycles with more teasing of stuff prior to them.

Bionic is at a semi-respectable $95k(ish).  It's not something we've broken even on yet, although I have to go back and calculate exactly how much we spent making that one.  We will break even on it eventually, but it's much slower than expected.

We were planning on doing an expansion for Bionic, but unfortunately the support just isn't there to make that viable.  We had already done some features that we were going to include in an expansion for Bionic, and with the decision not to go ahead with an expansion we just rolled those out as new free features to the base game a week or so ago.  There aren't going to be many updates to Bionic aside from bugfixes; it's a complete, self-contained game at this point.

That's actually true for all of our titles now except for AI War and The Last Federation.  Though we are going back and adding Linux support to everything that didn't already have it (even Tidalis, after all!).

moon collides with planetThe Last Federation - Phenomenal

Our latest title, The Last Federation, just passed $500k in 10 weeks, so it's our new most-amazing success.  AI War has still earned more than twice as much, but it did it over 5 years rather than 10 weeks, and with 5 expansions as opposed to zero.

As noted above our 6th expansion is in the works for AI War, nevertheless -- we're not abandoning that game just because we have something newer and more successful.  And naturally an expansion for TLF as well.  TLF continues to go great guns, and is basically single-handedly funding our work on our next title, Spectral Empire, a 4x which will come out next April.

To say that we are amazed and grateful for the reception that The Last Federation has had would be a huge understatement.  To put things in perspective, if you take an average of how the entire rest of our catalog has sold over 2014 so far, and then compare 10 weeks of that average to the first 10 weeks that TLF was out, TLF outsells everything else in our catalog combined by 7:1.  TLF was expensive to make, but it broke even somewhere around 7 weeks after coming out.  Skyward Collapse broken even much faster than TLF, but it also cost something like 1/8th as much to make.

MacGameStoreBannerShattered Haven - Worse And Worse

Well, this is our worst-selling title ever, even "topping" Tidalis, which I had not expected to ever manage to do.  We have  a lot of disparate income from various bundles and whatnot now, so it's harder and harder to collate exactly how much specific games are making unless we keep careful track of it.  With TLF, you bet we were watching that with fascination (and it hasn't been in any bundles, anyway).  For Shattered Haven, we've not been watching the numbers super closely.  I would hazard a guess that the total gross is around $30k total, based on the concrete numbers that I am looking at at then going from memory on the smaller gaps.

The Silver Lining On Shattered Haven (And Similar Games That Don't Fare Well)

That said, I'm really gratified to see that some people do connect with it as much as I do, and come into the forums and say how much they love it.  Here's an awesome thing: every single game that we have ever made is somebody's favorite game that we've ever made.  In other words, even our "worst game" is one that somebody (that I've never met) feels is our best game.  In some cases, we get people saying that our "worst game" is actually their favorite game ever in a genre -- or even out of all games in general!  That's a huge honor, and always takes me by surprise.

Cynics will go "there's no accounting for taste," and sure, that's true in a literal sense.  I think all of us like certain things that are not popular, and it's not because we're hipsters.  Shattered Haven's gameplay was very inspired by both Zelda 1 and Lode Runner: The Legend returns, and I think that people who like the latter in particular (or games like that) are likely to respond well to Shattered.  Story-wise, some people think that it's not really a good story (and some say the same about Tidalis).  But for those who connect with the emotion in Shattered, or the humor in Tidalis, it's really quite wonderful.  It comes down to taste.

I mention this because this is also true of lots of other games around the Internet.  I see it in the forums of other indie developers all the time.  They make something that the market hates, that the critics spurn, and that is a financial ruin for them.  Yet there are strangers telling them how much they love that title.  It's an odd thing to experience.

In some ways, I guess I kind of feel fortunate to have both this experience and the experience of having something much more widely popular and accepted.  Being able to recognize the nature of personal taste, and the role of luck as well, kind of helps take the sting off of my failures.  Or at least helps me put them in some kind of context, if that makes sense.  Very few people love every game we've ever made, and plenty of people don't like ANY game we've ever made, but somebody loves every game we've made, and some games are loved by a LOT of people, and that has to be good enough for me; that's the best anyone can really expect, I think, in all honesty.  Think about it; even for someone like Stephen King, who is like the Notch of novels.

Valley2Wallpaper1A Valley Without Wind 2 - Sigh

The gross total on Steam for the package that includes both this and Valley 1 was a mere $109k.  That's... pretty pathetic, honestly.  Given the huge expense of making this game, the Valley 1 and 2 package has been pushed so far into the red that they are never going to climb out of the hole.

People always complained about the graphics in Valley 1, but then once we did Valley 2 (which is vastly prettier, I think), people started complaining about how they preferred the character animations in Valley 1.  Go figure.

Valley 1 also is excessively more popular in terms of playtime.  It gets played more than Valley 2 by about a 5:1 ratio.  Valley 2 is the one that I actually prefer out of the two of them, although both are really fun.  But it was a complete genre shift from being a Metroidvania to being a Contra-like.  And the crafting and mild citybuilding from Valley 1 was instead replaced by procedural bonuses, character classes, and a semi-intimidating strategic layer in Valley 2.

A lot of fans of the first game didn't respond all that well to the shift, because they basically wanted more of the first game, but prettier.  Which I can understand.  Valley 2 probably would have been better received as a completely standalone separate game with no connection to the first.  Though critics did like Valley 2 better.

For myself, behind AI War, I think the game I have put the most time into playing recreationally from our library of games is a tossup between Shattered Haven (with my wife) and Valley 2 (with my 4 year old son).  Go figure!  This is kind of what I mean about there being no accounting for tastes.  Sometimes my taste is really odd to the point the market goes "what?" and that's something I'm having to learn to live with (and to try to avoid, where possible, as it really risks the company).

Skyward Collapse and the Nihon no Mura Expansion - Ehhh...

Zuess_finAt the time this came out, it did phenomenally well.  Its first month was not our highest-grossing launch, but it was our most units moved by a large margin.  It broken even in 3 days, and was 6% of our historical revenue within a month.  That's more or less where we left things at the last postmortem, a year ago.  Well, what's happened since then?

Sales tapered off pretty fast, actually.  The expansion came out to a resounding lack of interest from all except the core players, and gaming moved on.  This seems to be what happens to most games -- that's why the initial launch is so important -- but for Arcen the long tail has always been where the meat of our income comes from, so this was a surprise to me.

With the expansion, we deliberately released that in August just to see what would happen.  That's a real dead period in gaming, and we figured we could pick up some extra press due to that, and that we'd make up the initial shortfall in sales via long-term sales in discount promos and whatnot.  It was a reasonable plan, although a speculative one, and we knew the risks when we tried it.  It didn't pay off.

Actually, by putting so much work into Skyward 2.0 and the expansion, we managed to UN break even on the game that broke even in 3 days.  Facepalm.  But, by the end of 2013 we had re-broken even on the combination of the two, although the role of the expansion in that was questionable at best.

Looking At Company-Wide Numbers - Strength In Numbers, Actually

Still, despite the above, overall Skyward Collapse did respectably for last year.  The base game generated about $125k gross in that year on Steam, out of about $510k total for all our products last year, so Skyward was 24% of our income last year.  That's no slouch at all!  And frankly, Valley 1 + 2 were 21% of our revenue from last year.  By the end of last year we had 7 full games released, plus 1 expansion for Skyward and 5 expansions for AI War.  That's a lot of back catalog, and it's not the sort of back catalog that starts to look stale after a few years like the latest 3D games do.  Our graphics start out retro and stay retro, and I think that's part of the long tail that we experience.  And a number of other 2D or retro-styled games by other developers, frankly.

Anyway, aside from a dip in 2012 (I think it was the Q4 economy there, which hurt everyone), Arcen has always had at least around a 10% growth in year over year income.  Our big problem was always having expenses that grew at that rate or higher, thanks to my bringing on more and more staff.  So despite the constant growth, there was also a constant struggle.  Anyway, last year Arcen grossed over $700k in all, and no one product was more than 40% responsible for those numbers.  That's a big win for us, given how dominant AI War has been in our history.

Our strategy in 2013 was kind of the opposite of what we did in 2011 and 2012, where we focused on just one or two really giant games.  Instead we focused on a larger number of smaller titles, the two chief amongst those being Skyward and Bionic.  That strategy paid off in some respects, but by the same token it doesn't create titles with the longevity of AI War or The Last Federation.  So 2014 has seen us swing back the other way, working on larger titles again, but with more of an emphasis of keeping steady pacing without runaway expenses.

SpectralEmpireMock-7-14-croppedHistorical Performance, Updated

Overall, Arcen has now grossed somewhere around $2.7 million dollars. $500k of that came from The Last Federation in the last couple of months.  About $1.3m of that came from AI War over a span of 5 years.  That leaves $1.8m divided amongst all the rest of our products combined (6 games).  Valley 1 and 2 are the largest component of the rest of that, with about $500k in gross income between the two of them (since April 2011).  Skyward and its expansion and complete version account for about $180k.  Tidalis, something like $110k.  Bionic Dues, $95k or so, and Shattered Haven at something like $30k.

So, we've been all over the map, in terms of financial success.  I'm okay with that, so long as we stay solvent and free, though.  I look at Maxis games from way back in the early and mid 90s, and I really admire what they did.  They had some really hit games (SimCity, sort of SimTower), but then they also had a sizeable number of ones that never really took off.  But someone loved all of their games, even the "flops," and there was value and innovation in everything that they created.  I'm okay with a track record like that.

That said, our next title is a semi-traditional 4x, so we are playing it somewhat safe.  Granted, it has our own twists and uniquenesses on it, but we're not mashing up two unrelated genres like we so often have.  In the end it just boils down to being able to make what we're most interested in making at the time, and then doing the best job on it that we can.  With a lower amount of expenses, and more money shelved away for security, we currently don't have to run around with our hair on fire quite so much.  I've been basically in crunch mode for 5 years, and it's really nice to be able to actually take a more reasonable amount of time to do things.

Anyway.  For the moment, things are looking very much up, and I'm feeling very fortunate for the situation that we're in.  I had hoped to stabilize as a fulltime staff of 8, but ultimately we wound up stabilizing at a fulltime staff of 4.  That's the one thing that really kills me, but it's just more realistic for a company of our nature.  All in all, despite the many bumpy things last year, we managed to have a really solid year, and despite a very scary start, this year has now exceeded last year in every way.  Here's to the future.
Title: Re: Followup to last year's AI War postmortem (now discussing Bionic, TLF, etc).
Post by: nas1m on July 14, 2014, 04:49:41 PM
A very informative read as usual!
Glad you (as a company) are doing well for a change.
Thanks :)!
Title: Re: Followup to last year's AI War postmortem (now discussing Bionic, TLF, etc).
Post by: x4000 on July 14, 2014, 04:50:41 PM
Thank you!  Your continued support (you individually, and everyone else here as a longtimer, too) really means a ton to all of us. :)
Title: Re: Followup to last year's AI War postmortem (now discussing Bionic, TLF, etc).
Post by: Castruccio on July 14, 2014, 05:14:02 PM
I love these posts.  I wish more developers would do posts like this.  Thanks for the info.  Here's to your future.  You guys are the comeback kids, always finding a way to pull through. 
Title: Re: Followup to last year's AI War postmortem (now discussing Bionic, TLF, etc).
Post by: x4000 on July 14, 2014, 07:08:20 PM
Thank you very much!  It's been quite a ride, for sure.  And I definitely love to share, because I too wish that more companies would.  It's a fascinating subject to me to hear about other companies and how they do things compared to how we do, etc.
Title: Re: Followup to last year's AI War postmortem (now discussing Bionic, TLF, etc).
Post by: ptarth on July 14, 2014, 08:49:02 PM
I enjoy your reports on the economic side of things. I also had a few questions if you want to waste some time answering them.

Title: Re: Followup to last year's AI War postmortem (now discussing Bionic, TLF, etc).
Post by: Castruccio on July 14, 2014, 09:15:33 PM
Not sure if you read Jeff Vogel's stuff or not, Chris, but he posts some pretty interesting stuff about his 21 years making indie games. He doesn't talk much about hard sales figures for spiderweb games, but you might find his stuff interesting. The past 2 posts have been fairly controversial
Title: Re: Followup to last year's AI War postmortem (now discussing Bionic, TLF, etc).
Post by: Rekka on July 15, 2014, 07:34:09 AM
Very interesting and informative read. Thanks for sharing all this with us. I'm glad this year is a good one and wish the best of luck for the future of Arcen. :)
Title: Re: Followup to last year's AI War postmortem (now discussing Bionic, TLF, etc).
Post by: x4000 on July 15, 2014, 10:39:34 AM
I enjoy your reports on the economic side of things. I also had a few questions if you want to waste some time answering them.

Thanks!  And sure, I'm happy to answer.

  • You cite the AIWars expansions as not being as profitable or as lucky as AIWars. Yet one could argue that the expansions are continual advertisements for AIWars and that the success of AIWars is entirely due to the expansions. How do you decide how much credit is due to AIWars and how much to the expansions?

Sorry, I should have been more clear.  I absolutely DO think that the expansions are crucial, absolutely critical, to the continued success of AI War.  And they have been enormously financially successful, too.  The distinction I was trying to make is that they were not lucky.  In other words, they do not get a lot of press or anything like that, so they don't get a bump in that fashion.  But the AI War word of mouth continues on largely thanks to the expansions, I believe, and AI War remains something that -- as a "franchise" so to speak -- the news DOES talk about, even though they don't talk about any single expansion in particular most of the time.

You can be successful without being lucky, or unsuccessful without being unlucky.  In this particular case I was saying that I feel like the AI War expansions were not particularly lucky, and that their success is basically due to riding on the coattails of AI War, which was itself enormously lucky.  If that makes sense?

  • I've noticed Arcen products have been in a massive number of bundles lately. Indie developers are split in their ideas of bundles versus a fixed retail priced. Can you describe your strategies here and how you believe they will effect long term income generation? As an illustration, I've noticed that your weak selling titles are also the ones that are in bundles selling 5+ games for $1. Getting $0.05 for a copy of Shattered Haven isn't going to be helping its sales numbers very much.

Our strategy for this sort of thing really depends on the game, how well it has sold in the past, what our financial needs are at the time, how the title has been performing, etc.  Once you pass a point where a game is no longer really selling anything notable, then bundles make a ton of sense.  The amount of volume doesn't really matter.  Hey, it's money where there was none before -- and having more people play our games and hopefully enjoy them is only a good thing.  "Free" advertising, so to speak.  There's always the chance those people will then buy our later stuff at full price, and they now know who we are.

The bundles also are something that really saved our butts a few times last year in terms of providing us the income we needed to stay solvent while finishing certain titles.  Indie Royale and the Humble Weekly Sale, most notably.  The two of those account for something like 90% of our non-Steam revenue, at LEAST.

In past years I was really against bundles, and felt like they were a devaluing factor, etc.  And at this point I still do not do bundles on titles that are selling well unless we get some sort of specific benefit out of it.  Aka a minimum fixed price per unit, or some other thing that makes sense.  But suffice it to say, discount promotions are our bread and butter in terms of income (probably 85% of our income is made when titles are on some level of discount, I would guess, although I don't have numbers on that in front of me), and bundles are just one more form of discount.

Extreme bundles really should be reserved for titles that are otherwise not moving much, though.  And for some of our titles that just aren't moving much, we always hope to see a bit of a snowball effect with more people playing and talking about those titles.  And we do see that some, actually, but it doesn't translate into referral sales that I can see.

  • You've talked a lot about the gross game sales, but how do they fare in number of units sold?

I honestly can't tell you, as I don't have those numbers ready to hand.  I don't actually keep track of that, as it isn't something that is terribly actionable on my part.  I can easily look on Steam and see what is on there, but in terms of units sold through bundles and whatnot, I would have to dig back through tons of emails.  My best estimate is that there are somewhere around 750k to 900k copies of our games that have been sold, when you include each expansion as an individual unit.

I can tell you that on Steam, as of today, we've grossed $2,322,576 and sold 371,814 units total of everything with them.  So that's an average of $6.24 per unit, but that's across all of our games, including our $5 expansions and $20 games and things on discount and at full price, etc.

A couple more from Steam:
Last Federation: $449,599, 26,622 units.  So $16.88 on average.  Bear in mind that regional prices also play into this some, since sale prices are way lower in Russia and a few places like that.  TLF sold most of its units at 10% off at launch, then a solid bit at 0% off after that, and then a bump of them at 25% off and 40% off during the summer sale.

AI War Bundle: $491,028, 74,604 units.  So the average sale price there was actually $6.58, rather than the usual $16.99, which sounds about right.  We move tons of this at 75% off.  Why don't we just lower the price?  Well, experience shows us that if we lowered the price people would not buy more of it, we'd actually lose money.  If we cut the price in half and then did a 50% off sale, we'd be selling it for the same price as a 75% off sale now, but we'd earn less money both during that sale and during the non-sale periods.  Sad but true.

Discount sale in general have never been a bad thing for us, they really are our lifeblood.  But doing a permanent price lowering (which we did with Tidalis, AI War, and AI War's expansions) is something I'm always really wary of.  I think it actually did work for Tidalis and AI War, but it's not a decision you can take back, so I always am super cautious there.

  • One of the themes in your post is the effect of luck in game popularity and sales. This is a theme that is central to a number of Malcolm Gladwell's writings (e.g., Outliers), that success is highly due to luck. However, some critics and researchers believe that Gladwell is really writing things that read well, but lack true scientific rigor, instead appealing to our human foibles.  In this example, luck is a contributing factor, but there are many other causes as well. In attempts at ego preservation, people want to believe luck is a large factor in success, so that we can blame our failures and the successes of others on luck (and then its not our fault.
  • Wow, that sounds pretty harsh.

I've read his books, but I don't really have anything novel to say about them.  He makes some interesting points about a variety of things, but a lot of it is speculative, as you basically say.  I think his point about the tech magnates both being at the right time and place and age as WELL as having the skills is dead on, though.  Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and so on.  That's not an excuse for anyone else, because plenty of other people had big successes before and after those two, if not on that level.  Besides, Gladwell was talking about extreme outliers, not smaller ones.  Basically Minecraft and Angry Birds, not even something like Braid or Tiny Wings or Flappy Bird.  And anything Arcen makes is on a whole other lower level than those.

AI War and Minecraft actually launched in the same month -- May 2009, I am pretty sure -- and I think that both of them were recipients of substantial luck there.  At that time it was next to impossible to get press to pay attention to indies, and yet through a lot of hard work and wiliness and having the right games, we managed to do so.  Had we released our games a year earlier, I don't think the same things would have worked, at least not to the same degree.  We'll never know for sure, though.  Had we released a year later, we would have been more lost in the wave of other indies that were starting to come out, and thus would have had more trouble getting that early press and early mindshare.

All that said, a vast majority of it does come down to the game, of course.  All the luck in the world (usually) can't sell a bad game, although the success of Goat Simulator is something that I think astounds even the devs, who openly tout the bugs and whatnot.  But they did really nail the humor on the head, and I was greatly amused watching an interview video with them talking to an IGN guy while he was playing.  So I mean, even there they managed to really put together a package that attracts people for likely a variety of reasons.

I come from a background in business to business software, and I can tell you that is very different.  We had a few dozen clients, and they were enormous.  With new clients we could personally fly there and persuade them that our software was what they needed, and that we could do a job.  We could show them references of other clients who agreed that we were awesome.  It was all very personal in terms of the level of interaction, and we could always pretty much understand why someone did or did not become a client of ours.

But when selling mass market to the consumers, we are by contrast pretty blind.  The reason you do something is entirely counter to why person X might do the same thing.  Goat Simulator isn't something that sells well because of ONE reason, I guarantee you.  Different people are buying it for different reasons, and part of the reason it is so popular is likely because it has a perfect storm of reasons that keep enough people buying it.

Let's look at military history.  I think that we can all agree that military strategy is enormously skill-based, and yet "no plan survives contact with the enemy."  Sometimes there were armies that were just frankly unlucky, because they happened to get surprised at a time when they had no reason at all to expect it, or there was some other outside force (weather, etc) that crept up in an unexpectedly meaningful manner and changed the situation.  Some of these things were legitimate mistakes, some were unforeseeable but at the same time were a "now we know not to do that again" learning experience, and other things were just simply a matter of "that was a freak thing that happened that one time, and probably never will again, for good or ill."

I'm not a military history expert, but I think that general sentiment is pretty much accepted.  The best generals were the ones who reacted well to changes in the fortunes of war, and also who were equipped to do so.  But even for some of them, eventually they fell because things just eventually didn't go their way despite their skill.  And there are some frustrating examples of a really sucky commander getting really lucky and overwhelming a really awesome one, I'm pretty sure.

Anyway, I look at the role of luck in the mass market sales of games as being something along those lines.  It doesn't mean that if you lose a battle you can just go "ah, that happens, let's move on and not learn anything!"  It doesn't mean "oh, nothing I did had anything to do with that!"  It doesn't mean "nothing I do matters, so let's just hang my shingle out there and see what happens."

But NOT recognizing the role of luck is frankly poisonous.  Both to those who succeed and fail.  There are a number of examples in indie games (which I will not name out of politeness, but I'm sure you can think of them) who had an awesome first game's performance, and they then got a big head and assumed anything they later did would be gold.  So they put in a ton of time on something new, but weren't quite as "hungry" as they were when they were smaller.  They were overconfident, instead, because they thought the past success was entirely based on their innate awesomeness.  Then reality hit with the second game tanking, partly due to it being inferior based on their own actions, and partly due to the fact that THAT much luck that they had the first time doesn't always strike twice.

There are a bunch of other indies who have one smash hit, and then DON'T get a big head, and then continue releasing quality titles.  Those titles then do quite well, but they aren't smash hits and aren't talked about on the level of the first one.  Should they feel bad?  Did they lose their edge?  No.  The first was great and lucky, and the others were just great or good.

My point, at core, is that people like to boil things down too simply.  This is the problem with Malcolm Gladwell in a nutshell, really, but at least he brings up new points of view from the norm.  The reality is that nothing is simple, everything has many many causes, and I'm not sure that anything is actually deterministic (at least on a level that we can appreciate).  In other words, while you're insinuating that I attribute too much to luck, I actually think most people attribute too much to skill.  I attribute an enormous amount to skill, but recognize the power of luck and its effect on things.  Luck is basically an amplifier or a dampener, that's all it is, though.

  • AIWars and The Last Federation are your two best sellers and the luckiest, but seem to have made their money in different ways.

I wasn't super clear, but I actually view Skyward Collapse as luckier than AI War.  I'd say it is TLF that is the luckiest, then Skyward, then AI War.  But the nature of their luck is entirely different, yes.  The markets they released into were also VASTLY different, so the type of luck required was vastly different.  Strategies that worked for generating success in 2009 are no longer valid.  Because of the flood of new games, strategies that worked in 2013 are actually quickly becoming out of date, too.

  • You cite AIWars as being lucky with advertisement, but it is arguably your best product to date. It is best seller, but it is also the best product in game engine, gameplay, and support. Its income has come from a long history of reliable consistent sales.
  • In contrast we have other great seller, The Last Federation. I don't have access to sales data, but I have looked at forum data. Immediately after release, activity was reasonable. However, a few days after release, TotalBiscuit released a strongly favorable WTF is The Last Federation and forum activity increased by 300%. I'm guessing sales follow the same pattern. And it self perpetuated, with strong sales leading to further exposure and continued strong sales.
    • Front page Steam advertising is amazing, as demonstrated by the impact of the community Steam Sale.
  • In contrast to AIWars, tLF looks very pretty. The interface looks highly polished and the game makes great screenshots.

TLF was already going gangbusters before TB did his video.  The forums went more active than sales did following his video.  Sales for TLF were highest in its first 24 hours, and then dipped a bit, then went back up a bit when his video came out, then gradually fell down for the next couple of days.  It was a crazy weekend.

And yes, graphics matter.  The name of games also matters.  I think that part of the problem with Bionic Dues -- and I have been first told this by a member of the press who I trust -- is the name.  When you see something on Steam, all you see is the name and a very small icon.  The Last Federation is a very strong name, while Bionic Dues is a weak one.  The screenshots are much stronger on TLF than on Bionic, too, and certainly more than AI War.

Anyway, yes, success begets success.  AI War's success was in large part due to my unrelenting campaign with the press and forums all over the internet to help educate anyone and everyone who was talking about the game.  The big piece of luck for AI War was getting just the right press that let us get onto Steam at a time when almost nobody else did.  TLF's luck was in its original weekend launch and when exactly that happened and how long it stayed on the front page.  Beyond those things it was pretty much down to the games themselves and our marketing efforts (largely).

  • The other Arcen titles are... not very polished looking. The art is functional, but it isn't outstanding. If you show the screenshots of the games to an naive viewer they will rate most of the other titles as being 5-15 years older than they actually are.
  • I'd argue that the luck of tLF is really just good positive advertising with a very polished initial appearance. And with enough gameplay that players don't feel it necessary to bombard forums with any negative experiences they have.
  • So is luck in advertisement the key to success for a small developer?
  • Of course this brings up the conclusion, if initial exposure is king, then are games that focus on good long-term gameplay viable for small developers? For a statistical illustration, let's say 10% of games hit the "lucky" spot. If a dev spends a year making 1 game, they have a 10% chance of a single "lucky" success. If they spend a year  making 12 games, they have a 72% chance of at least a single success.
    • This is the pattern that mobile gaming is taking. And as a long-term gamer, this makes displeases me.
I think that there is no one simple model, and anyone who tries to condense it to such is going to wind up going down the one path.  As noted above, the best generals adapt to circumstances that change.  The market is changing every year, and the method for marketing a strategy game is vastly different from marketing a platformer or a casual game.  Trying to over-generalize is one of the things that we as humans try to do too much, I think, and that's my own personal chief complaint against Gladwell.  I enjoy his books because he has a contrarian point of view, but I don't believe everything he says is innately true.  I think that Truth is an infinitely-faceted complex thing when it comes to understanding even something like why some games sell when others don't.  I think you hit on some things, I think I've hit on some others, and so on.  But I have other thoughts that I haven't typed up, and there are other thoughts that are things that I wonder but am not sure about.

If a dev spends a year making 1 game, then there is higher financial risk -- this much is indisputable.  If they are smart about how they make it and how they market it, however, they can minimize the impact that negative luck can have.  You can then hit a point where you have kind of a baseline level of success that you can probably count on.  Whether or not it goes sky high or not is still somewhat a matter of luck, though.

The Edge of Tomorrow is doing pretty well, but not as well as expected from what I understand.  That movie is amazing (I actually saw it twice, which I practically never do in theaters), and the critics seem to be overwhelmingly positive, too.  So why is Godzilla beating it, despite ostensibly not being as good?  I think some of it is probably marketing, sure -- Godzilla was way more visible.  The names probably have something to do with it, too.  Tom Cruise may be a factor.  There are probably other things, too.  But then there's also just plain luck in there somewhere.

  • One complaint I get from others when I make them play Skyward Collapse is that the graphics are too small. What do you think about the viability of a graphic modded version with units and buildings being larger and cartoonier (and with animations) per titles like Final Fantasy Tactics?
  • I get the same complaint when I try to get others to play Shattered Havens, the graphics are too small. What do you think about the viability of a graphic modded version with things being larger and cartoonier (and with animations) per titles like Secret of Mana? (You also might need a level minimap, but that's just details)
  • How do you feel about opening up Arcen architecture to community modding, the costs and benefits? (Don't feel you have to patronize us here, many of the ideas proposed by formers are not remotely economically viable)

It wouldn't be economically viable for us on any of that, really.  And opening it up to modding would either be just giving away the games for free, or selling them at a super low price.  The graphics in Skyward are quite large, actually -- there is no problem for anyone in seeing them if they play on a screen resolution that is appropriate for their monitor size.  The problem is that some folks have high-density screens and they then insist on playing our titles on those with the resolution at native.  That makes everything TINY as heck.  You're seeing things at like half the size of what they are supposed to be.

Shattered Haven is borderline too small for sure, though.  But if anything, Skyward is on the very very large side.

  • A common problem with indie developers is groupthink.
    • Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints, by actively suppressing dissenting viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences. - Wikipedia
    • I would provide examples, but that would be rather political. Regardless, I'm certain that everyone has their own example of this.
    • Of course, there is also the other extreme, the counter-flaws such as: indecision, too much compromise, and slow development.
    • What strategies have you used to avoid the dangers of these two classes of issues (groupthink and counter-flaws)?
    • How well do you believe they have worked?
Generally speaking, I'm a nonconformist by nature.  I also come at this from a business software background, while most of the others come from AAA game development backgrounds.  So my approaches and values are inherently different.  A lot of times groupthink comes from the idea of "safety in numbers," or the fear of trying something new.  I think Arcen, for better and for worse, is demonstrably not that. 

I've used the financial buffer from AI War to do a lot of experimenting and learn a lot of things.  A lot of those things did not pay off, some were major losses, but all were valuable learning experiences.  Which sounds like a cliche thing to say, but what I mean is that I literally have information now that others do not have.  But as of TLF, the learning period is basically over for me, in terms of wild experimenting on a high wire.  We're still going to be experimental and unique, but in terms of where the worst areas of risk are, we've learned to recognize those pretty well.  Not perfectly, but after each project we look back at it and decide what we did well and what we did poorly, both internally and externally and so forth.  Bionic Dues in our evaluation was the closest thing to being perfect internally (and still far from it, but closer than any of the others), while AI War and Valley 1 and TLF were the best ones on the external side.

  • With current product history, it seems pretty obvious that Arcen will continue to be successful and continue to grow (although, just not as quickly as initially expected). As it grows, do you think you'll move upwards in management scale and hire more programmers or would new people will be brought int to deal with management while you remain closer to project development?

At present, I don't plan to make any more hires.  A lot of companies pursue kind of unlimited growth, but I don't feel that is needed or healthy.  Having a highly skilled core team that can do things in a reasonably inexpensive way while at the same time compensating everyone in a way that a real business would (as opposed to how a lot of game companies do, where they treat employees like crap), is more my goal.

I'm sure that Arcen will likely grow again at some point, but there is no innate desire in me to see that happen right now, and literally no incentive to do so.  The one thing that is an exception is that I would like to bring Cath back as a fulltime artist, as opposed to just being a contractor on a much more part-time basis like she is now.  But Blue is just absolutely killing it on the Spectral Empire art at the moment, so...

In terms of my own role, yes, that has shifted and that's part of the success of TLF.  Having more time for me to work on straight design and to then playtest and evaluate is important.  Looking at the forest rather than the trees.  Late in the TLF process, that broke down because of time pressure, and I think that the weaker parts of that game are largely due to those two factors -- the undue time pressure and my shift into a more active programming role instead of being able to focus on design.  But there were a good 3 months there during the first part of TLF's development where I did literally no programming for Arcen.  It was extremely odd.

For Spectral Empire, aside from some graphics programming and a few other bits here and there, I will not be doing much if any programming on that title.  However, all the programming on TLF has been handed over to me at this point, so I'll be doing the programming and design on that while I then do design and general producer-role stuff on Spectral Empire.[/list]
Title: Re: Followup to last year's AI War postmortem (now discussing Bionic, TLF, etc).
Post by: x4000 on July 15, 2014, 11:03:11 AM
Not sure if you read Jeff Vogel's stuff or not, Chris, but he posts some pretty interesting stuff about his 21 years making indie games. He doesn't talk much about hard sales figures for spiderweb games, but you might find his stuff interesting. The past 2 posts have been fairly controversial

I've definitely enjoyed his writings, although he has a very different way of running his business from mine.  Though that's part of why I enjoy his writings so much, actually. 

I just skimmed his last two articles, though, and I have to say I agree with most of what he's saying.  With the exception of "don't engage the haters."  That is usually true, but in some cases better advice is "be civil to haters, treat them like humans, and listen to and try to address any legitimate complaints they might have."  Some former haters have turned into staunch Arcen advocates from that.  But anyhow.  Mostly it's better to ignore.

Anyway, I agree with him that the easy money is gone.  That's part of where the luck in TLF came from, is how long it was able to be on the Steam front page (4 days!) where some games that were released the prior day were only there for 2-3 hours (literally).  That makes a huge difference.  That wasn't all luck, I actually planned for certain things there, but then we got extra lucky on top of the planning.

In terms of the bundles, sure, there are a ton of them and people are getting weary.  "Just being on Steam" doesn't mean the same thing anymore, and I am in an expert position to say that since when AI War came out there, there were only around 73 or 78 (I can't remember which) other indie games on Steam SINCE 2004.  The market has changed, dramatically.

In fact, just this sort of market change has been my #1 fear since early 2010.  I've been waiting for this to happen with some degree of panic all these years.  In 2013 it started to happen, and in 2014 it's happening even more.  However, Valve is being smart about this and they have some things in the works (I can't say what) that make me pretty confident in the future of that platform.  These are very, very smart people and I love the ideas they have come up with.  And no, I have no idea when those ideas will come to fruition.

But the thing is, for Arcen, I feel like we have won at this point.  TLF was a success in the middle of all this mess.  And even better yet, it was our BIGGEST success, by a LOT.  That really set my mind at ease a lot.

THAT said, despite the success of TLF, I'm still kind of hoarding money for the company.  Why?  Because I think that there may be some dark times ahead, and I want to live through them if so.  For years Arcen has been able to skirt along quarter-to-quarter making enough money to scrape by, but that sort of model looks nothing short of suicidal in today's market and the market that I project is coming later this year and next year.  Hence my not immediately rehiring to 7 after the success of TLF.  Which felt shitty to do, but it's the nature of the market now.

The other reason that Arcen has won is that we have been so decidedly odd and up and down and interesting that the press likes to talk about us, and players know us and like to read about us.  We also have a certain dedicated fanbase.  This is an advantage that helps us, but if we were just trying to get started as an indie now in 2014, it would be a nightmare.  When I talk about the role of luck -- or when Malcolm Gladwell talks about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates being at the right place at the right time -- that's what we mean.  Starting in 2009, Arcen got ideal placement to find its identity and be ready for this year.  Starting this year, things would have gone very differently.  I don't know of any other way to define that other than luck.

Anyway, so it sucks to be a new guy, now.  My prediction is that the rate of new indie game companies succeeding is going to drop substantially.  We've seen this before, with the shareware market in the late 90s.  But plenty of companies lived through that, and I intend to be one of them.

Part of living through that sort of thing, though, means playing to our strengths and being a little less experimental.  Spectral Empire is another strategy game, since that's what we are best at as well as being most known for.  But it's also the sort of game that won't cannibalize sales of AI War or TLF, since it's so different from both of them.  It's also large enough in scope that others can't easily duplicate it, which is good.  That puts it squarely in our wheelhouse, and I expect to make a mix of games like that, plus expansions, for the foreseeable future.

There are also small projects, like Airship Eternal, that we'll still try out.  Those have to stay small and cheap for them to be viable, though.  That's how I'll get my genre weirdness out of my system, I guess. ;)  I'm really looking forward to that project, but it can't be something that grows into a massive expense or else it's guaranteed to be a money hole in today's market.  There are too many other SHMUPs.  I also pretty much can never make another platformer again with any expectation of making any money, as that market is just saturated.  I wouldn't even consider it.  Aside from the fact that doesn't play to our strengths.

Did you know that Squaresoft used to make some action games?  It's true.  Then they went all-RPG for quite a long while, because that was what they were really good at and what was safe for them.  It's only more recently that they've done things like buy Eidos and make action games again through them, but even there that has had mixed success to my understanding.  But the company is in a financial position that they have been able to weather the experimental bumps of things like that, gaffes like FFs 13 and 14, etc.

Anyway, I always knew that indie gaming was in a "gold rush" period, so to speak, and that I had just happened to luck out in being right at the front of the main wave of that.  2008 showed that stuff was possible, and then in 2009 the first wave of the modern indie period really hit.  The real crescendo of the wave actually took a lot longer to arrive than I expected, which I'm grateful for.  Every year starting in 2010 I thought it was going to happen that year, but it's taken until 2013 for that to really be the case.

I don't really have any good advice for aspiring indies.  I don't know what I would do trying to enter this market, as it's nothing like the market I entered.  Every game needs to find its own path, anyway.  But for Arcen, I do have a definite strategy for weathering this and coming out on the other end as one of the smaller number of developers that remain long-term.  I intend to still be here doing this 30 years from now.
Title: Re: Followup to last year's AI War postmortem (now discussing Bionic, TLF, etc).
Post by: x4000 on July 15, 2014, 11:03:24 AM
Very interesting and informative read. Thanks for sharing all this with us. I'm glad this year is a good one and with the best of luck for the future of Arcen. :)

My pleasure, and thanks!
Title: Re: Followup to last year's AI War postmortem (now discussing Bionic, TLF, etc).
Post by: x4000 on July 15, 2014, 11:04:43 AM
From the blog posts:

Quote from: Greg
While I completely understand the concerns about bundling AVWW 2 with AVWW 1, there might be a slight silver lining to it (assuming others think the same way I do). While I’m familiar with AI Wars, it’s not really a game I’ve gotten into (though I do own it… just not enough time). As such, the first thing I associate with you guys is the AVWW problems, and you sticking to your word and releasing AVWW 2 for free to owners of 1. It’s created a very strong, very solid reputation in my mind, and that reputation has tipped my hand when buying some of your other games. I’d imagine I’m not completely alone in that, though I haven’t really heard anyone mention it.

I really appreciate you saying that, and I think you’re probably right. It wasn’t a calculated decision, but when I realized things were going sideways I kept looking at it and going “well, I have to keep my word and hope for the best.” That’s really one of the most important things someone has, is their word. Being a person and a company that is at all worthy of respect is something I value, particularly in the age of ripping off addictive personalities with psychologically-tuned micro-transactions.

Anyway, I really appreciate it. :)

Quote from: Alban
Wow, thanks a lot for the update, it’s really interesting and appreciated! There’s one sentence that really made my day, which is “Though we are going back and adding Linux support to everything that didn’t already have it (even Tidalis, after all!).”

This is really excellent news (I’m a Linux user, and I just realize that Shattered Haven and Skyward Collapse just have been ported!), and it also raises another question, if you don’t mind: do you have data and/or expectations specifically for Linux support?

I mean, for example I bought most (don’t have TLF yet) of your games in Windows form, even though I mostly use Linux, and run them on Wine. I think I only originally got AI War for Linux in a Bundle, quite some time ago.
Since Steam is such a huge distributor for you, and they have the “buy once, play on all platforms” policy, aren’t you worried that a lot of your customers already have the games, and so while they will obviously be delighted to get to play natively, the port won’t actually transform into much more sales?
That’s something I’ve been wondering not only for Arcen but for a lot of games being ported in general.
Mind, I’m really happy this happens, and it’s completely mind-boggling that less than a year after official announcement of SteamOS, every single game on Steam frontpage Featured Items is Linux compatible, from AAA titles like CIV V and Metro* to most indies.
Creating new games as Linux friendly makes complete sense. But I’m curious how this porting effort affects the back catalog?
If anything it will likely get you a lot of extra goodwill even from your past customers like me :) I guess TLF will be mine soon.

OK I hope I’m not pushing my luck too much, you must be pretty busy so don’t feel obligated to get a full-blown post if you want to answer ;) And again thanks a lot for this post!

My pleasure! Thanks for poking me to do the update. :)

Regarding the linux support, we actually added that to Tidalis just recently as well, so currently our only non-linux titles are AI War, and then Valley 1 and 2.

I hope to get Valley 1 and 2 ported this week, and then AI War will be ported after its expansion comes out in August. We don’t want to muddy the waters of testing and whatnot with trying to do an expansion and a linux port at the same time for AI War, which is why that will lag so far behind the others. It should be out officially on linux in August or September, though.

Bionic Dues was our first linux title, as it was the first that we were able to do on a version of Unity 3D that supported linux. TLF was our second linux title, and we were kind of continuing to watch those games and how they performed on varying linux machines before we committed our back catalog. Were we going to have a ton of support requests, etc? Turns out not.

The other big roadblock for us with linux was having an auto-updater for the games aside from Steam. For Bionic I didn’t have time to write one, and so it was Steam-only for a goodly while (it is not anymore). With TLF we did the auto-updater, and then made sure that worked well before we then back-ported that to Bionic and made a non-Steam version of that game.

There were some other hiccups as well in the port to linux, but since all our games already had OSX support, most of the issues were not too severe.

We sell all of our games “buy once, play on any platform” just like Steam does, and in fact I think that’s really the only reputable way to sell games for the PC. So in terms of whether or not a port makes us a lot of money, the answer is it definitely makes us none off of existing customers. Even worse, for our new titles like Bionic and TLF that had Linux support from the start, it’s not like they had massive amounts of new sales that were attributed to linux. Let’s look at the numbers:

Last Federation: 6.23% OSX, 1.87% Linux
Bionic Dues: 5.76% OSX, 4.23% Linux

So those don’t exactly look like barn-burner numbers even on a new game, right? But the thing is, I’m looking to the future as much as anything else. There are certain audiences that are particularly hungry for linux games, and we tend to make games that cater to that sort of crowd. I suspect that a lot of them actually play our game on windows right now just because they have to play their other games on windows anyway. Eventually that will change.

Being one of the very earliest developers on Steam to move to OSX afforded us a lot of marketing opportunities in 2010 and 2011, and really was very big for us. Being among the reasonably-somewhat-quick developers on Steam to move to Linux, and one of the many to do it prior to SteamOS launching, is I think a move that will also set us up for good things later on.

When it comes to doing linux ports, a lot of the work is one-time-only, too. Making Bionic work on linux was a huge pain. Getting an updater that works on linux for TLF on linux was another huge pain. There were a few other things along those lines. But beyond that, it’s now very easy. I can actually do a port to linux on our existing titles in about 2 hours of coding and testing. It then takes another 4 to 6 hours or so to do uploads and store configurations and so on. Unity 3D makes it that easy in terms of the core porting, and in terms of the extended stuff that was a pain (steamworks integration, automatic updater, etc), we already have that worked out and we just move it from project to project.

So the cost to us of doing these ports of our older titles is exceedingly low, and it’s not hard at all to make up the money for less than a day of my work, haha.

Even so it’s still not a barn-burner sort of situation, so in a lot of respects there are “more profitable things I could be spending my time on.” And frankly, when we were in a do-or-die situation during TLF’s development cycle, that was what I had to do, which is why these linux ports took so long to come about. But with some breathing room thanks to TLF, I now have some time to do things like this.

I also think that SteamBox/SteamOS could be huge, and I really hope it will be. I have always wanted to play Shattered Haven and Valley 1 and 2 on my TV, but I want it to be on an open platform like the PC is. For the record, I consider windows, OSX, and linux to be “open platforms” in terms of my own freedom. I can make a game, and put it out there, and nobody can stop me. They don’t have to download it or buy it, but by golly I can shout into the emptiness if I feel like it. ;) But on something like the traditional platforms, there are enormous amounts of money involved, and very strict certifications, and absolutely there are people telling you “yes you can do this, or no you can’t do that.” I don’t mean in a gatekeeper-like sense of who gets to put a game on at all; I mean that once you are approved to put a game on, you’re still scrutinized and subject to someone else’s schedules and processes.

Anyway, thanks again for your enthusiasm, and for your great (twice now!) followup questions!
Title: Re: Followup to last year's AI War postmortem (now discussing Bionic, TLF, etc).
Post by: Nodor on July 15, 2014, 03:48:37 PM
I am REALLY looking forward to the 4X you have coming out this year.  You seem unmatched in the procedural systems based gameplay content generation department of game design and having that level of expertise applied to my favorite genre.. let's just say I'm hopeful for fantastic results.

Title: Re: Followup to last year's AI War postmortem (now discussing Bionic, TLF, etc).
Post by: ptarth on July 15, 2014, 04:03:21 PM
Thank you for spending the time on responding to my previous questions. (I'd like to take credit for delaying the tLF expansion by a full work day.)
I had some follow-ups.

Title: Re: Followup to last year's AI War postmortem (now discussing Bionic, TLF, etc).
Post by: Billick on July 15, 2014, 05:01:03 PM
Thanks again for posting these.  It's always interesting to read.  I'm very happy to hear you guys are doing better financially, and will be able to continue to make games in the foreseeable future.

Title: Re: Followup to last year's AI War postmortem (now discussing Bionic, TLF, etc).
Post by: Aklyon on July 15, 2014, 06:59:12 PM
Thanks again for posting these.  It's always interesting to read.  I'm very happy to hear you guys are doing better financially, and will be able to continue to make games in the foreseeable future.
I've got pretty much the same thing to say here. Quite the interesting read!
Title: Re: Followup to last year's AI War postmortem (now discussing Bionic, TLF, etc).
Post by: x4000 on July 15, 2014, 08:57:37 PM
I am REALLY looking forward to the 4X you have coming out this year.  You seem unmatched in the procedural systems based gameplay content generation department of game design and having that level of expertise applied to my favorite genre.. let's just say I'm hopeful for fantastic results.

Thank you very much!  It's still a long ways off, but I'm pleased by how the (very) early prototypes are panning out thus far with the code and art and design, and I'm excited about the concepts that I have planned for the design. :)

Thank you for spending the time on responding to my previous questions. (I'd like to take credit for delaying the tLF expansion by a full work day.)

Haha.  No worries. ;)

  • Do you prefer to be addressed as x4000 or Chris (or something else) in the forums?

I honestly don't really care; x-4000 has been "my name" for well over half of my life in the digital world, so I'm as used to it as I am to Chris.  People who know me better tend to call me Chris, which I certainly don't mind.

  • You had mentioned that that art assets in AVWW2 was much improved, but that people were complaining about the animation quality.  As a disclosure, I am sensitive to motion sickness. Many games with rapid camera movement or poorly done AA can drive me blinding headaches very quickly. I was able to play about 5 minutes of Quake before I had to stop and had a raging headache for hours.  I was playing AVWW2 last night for the first time (previously I had only played AVWW1), and was experiencing constant headache and nausea. I've been trying different graphic settings in the hopes of being able to play it, but if not, I'm afraid I'm not going to be able to finish it. So while it may seem fickle of your audience, there is definitely something that is disconcerting with the animation and movement in AVWW2. Curiously enough, AVWW1 does not give me the problem.

Oh, I know it's not a fickle audience, I didn't mean to imply that, though I realize now that I did.  The problem was a lower number of animation frames on the animations and a general issue with the fluidity there.  The monsters in Valley 2 were almost all animated by me, and I don't think any of them have the problems people complained about.  But the characters themselves were done by other artists and each frame was hand-drawn, and there can be problems with that when you have too few frames for too broad of motions.  It doesn't bother me personally, looking at it, but the difference is going from something like 24 frames to something like 6.

  • AIWars and sale units.
    • AIWars has the unique position of being popular as a base game and popular with expansions. I'd be curious to see how many base games have been sold compared to each of the expansions, and if they are bought separately or bundled. You can't get that information out of dollar sales, but only from unit sales. It might be informative about development and packaging approaches, or it might just be trivia.
On Steam, the base game by itself has sold $412k, and 51,259 units by itself.  The bundles far outpace this, and then individual sales of the expansions makes it so that barely anybody seems to have JUST the base game.  I would estimate that maybe 20% of the audience, at absolute maximum, have only the base game.

  • Bionic Dudes is credited as having a weak name. Do you think it might be "rescued' by the release of a stand-alone expansion pack (which included the base game or could upgrade the base game) with a strong name? Something like: AIWars City Robot Defense League: A Bionic Dudes Expansion? Stardock has done this with Fallen Enchantress/War of Magic.

To be honest, I'm not too interested in trying to go back and rescue games that did not sell for whatever reason.  I mean, we try what we can in terms of getting the word out, marketing and so on, but that ball is in Erik's court.  And myself with interviews, and both of us with setting up promotions and whatnot.  But the game basically is what it is.  We thought about doing a more hardcore-puzzle-game visual style for Tidalis and making basically a Tidalis 2 that would look as hardcore as it is, but ultimately that is a lot of risk for not much potential gain.

To put it another way, there are easier (and vastly more fun) ways for us to make money.  And we have the advantage of not keeping all our eggs in fewer baskets.  Even if the Valley games never break even, which they likely never will, they still do sell regularly, and I won't say no to continued $50-$100k of gross sales per year from them.  Investing further in trying to "fix" them in terms of market appeal would be too high risk, and ultimately frustrating in general.  Versus if we focus on making new games, then we just basically keep on earning from the back catalog by virtue of the fact that they exist, they periodically go on discount, and new players discover them, etc.

  • Arcen & Modding
    • In regards to opening up Arcen products for modding you responded with:
    • "And opening it up to modding would either be just giving away the games for free, or selling them at a super low price."
    • I'm not sure what you meant here. Possibly you meant that it would require a reasonably large manpower commitment and that then you'd either have to release it as a free upgrade to the game or sell the modability upgrade for a small fee, neither being very viable. Or I'm completely wrong, can you clarify?
I meant that the games are very hardcoded in most ways.  So either we would have to rewrite HUGE chunks of the engines with no real expectations of increased revenue from that, or we would have to open source the games, which is basically giving them away for free.

  • I spend most of my time on a 14" laptop with a native resolution of 1440x 900 (standalone GPU). I'm frequently warned that changing to a different resolution may cause display problems and inferior performance. I'm guessing that this is an example of your cited improper resolution to monitor size issue (in regards to Shattered Haven and Skyward Collapse). What resolution would you say is optimal for a 14" laptop display?

Well, on a 22inch widescreen monitor, 1920x1280 is basically the expected resolution.  In terms of a 14" laptop, if it's widescreen, I guess that would translate to about 1280x720.  Although frankly, smaller than 15" screens are getting pretty small in general.  I can see where that would be a problem.  On my 15" MacBook Pro, I run in 1440x900 and consider that comfortable, but that's just me.

  • You've repeated statements about how Arcen has suffered from Testing and QA resource limitations (e.g., Bionic Dudes naming and tLF late development gameplay weakness). Before the downsizing this was Josh's bailwick, but after, responsibilities were distributed across the remaining team. Efforts obviously had to suffer due to the limited manpower you have available and due to the overlap in duties (e.g., you have to design/program/test everything). Larger companies have an entire department devoted to inhouse QA. This department is continually testing products, running viability surveys, and evaluating test panel responses. In an ideal world with unlimited funding, such a department would be great. However, given Arcen's current status and your own plans for the company, that isn't an option. Do believe that QA has been a problem (trying not to put words into your mouth here)? If so, at some stage do you believe you will rehire for a QA position, or do you believe your new development plan (which effectively transfers manhours from design and programming to QA) will address this weakness?

Whoa, I don't think any of that has to do with QA at all.  Realizing that the name does not do well in the market is not a QA problem, that's a producer-level issue and/or a marketing issue.  We've had really excellent QA in general with our process for working with players, etc.  Our problem with the end of TLF was running out of money and having to rush it a bit, which was due to low initial finances coupled with a higher burn rate coupled with having more prototypes than I desired for the combat model (which ate up a lot of dev time).

None of that was Josh's fault, or a QA problem in general.  I would classify those as mostly project management issues, which is in my court.  Aka that I didn't plan well enough, didn't anticipate certain things, and also didn't have the resources behind me to deal with curveballs if they happened.  Having a larger staff exacerbates those problems, because each month costs more and thus you get fewer months.

The biggest problems, QA-wise, are making sure that:
1. The lead designer of the game gets sufficient time to actually playtest and make sure his/her vision is coming through in a coherent way.
2. The volunteer players get enough months with the game in order to find the bulk of the issues.
3. The programmer(s) have enough time to actually respond to the things found in #1 and #2.
4. And finally that #1 through #3 are not running right up to the last week, so that there is instead a "fallow" period right before the game comes out where things are stable and only small polish things and bugfixes are put in place.  Basically where the new AI War expansion is right now, and has been since the start of the month.

In other words, I don't feel like there are any QA problems in a direct sense, I think it's more a matter of project management and time schedules, which are kind of the same thing.  Along with allocation of my own time to make sure that I am heavily testing as much as possible.  Part of the success of AI War, I think, is that I playtested that thing to absolute death.  At this point in time, I probably have 4,000 hours of playtime into that game, far more than anyone else.  That really does matter.  With TLF, I had lots of time for testing things for a while, but then ran into the issue of not having so much time at the end.

There are certain things that only the lead designer notices about their own design, and there are certain things that only anyone BUT the lead designer of the game notice, and you have to have proper testing from both camps to really do a game justice.  Aside from AI War and Tidalis, and to some extent Bionic and TLF and Shattered Haven, all our games have suffered from not enough lead designer testing.  Note that I was not the lead designer on Tidalis, so despite the fact that I tested on it plenty, it wasn't my testing that was crucial in that case.

  • Is it arKEN or arSEN?
  • I've noticed that you have problems with formating lists too. Any thoughts to why why a seemingly straightforward process is so unwieldy on this forum software?

ArKEN.  And the list formatting gets odd because I copy and paste and can't be bothered to fix it because it looks good enough.  You make it very very difficult to quickly quote you, and I'm trying to respond to you as quickly as possible while being informative, anyway.  I'm a very fast typist, but there's a limit to my output. ;)

Thanks again for posting these.  It's always interesting to read.  I'm very happy to hear you guys are doing better financially, and will be able to continue to make games in the foreseeable future.
I've got pretty much the same thing to say here. Quite the interesting read!

Thank you to you both! :)
Title: Re: Followup to last year's AI War postmortem (now discussing Bionic, TLF, etc).
Post by: Histidine on July 16, 2014, 09:22:24 AM
Great writeup, as always  :)

One of the things that struck me as a beta tester (i.e. in the outer rings of the development cycle) was the fact that it seemed so surely trapped in development hell there. Sudden feature creep (seemingly started by my comment about weapon switching, heh) with under two months left to release, switching the combat model twice midway through... finally having to release prematurely due to the company's untenable financial situation.

And yet it turned out better than any Arcen game to date. All that hard work (especially at the last minute!) definitely went to make a game that still shined despite the lack of polish, but I have to admit, I was worried for a while there, heh.
Title: Re: Followup to last year's AI War postmortem (now discussing Bionic, TLF, etc).
Post by: x4000 on July 16, 2014, 09:29:02 AM
Thanks. :)

And yep, that was neither our worst "development hell" experience, sadly.  But yeah, both Keith and I were burning through hours like crazy.  It was 7 days a week for me for several months there.  That was true at the end of Valley 1 and Valley 2, too.  That's one of the big things that I'm trying to get away from, among other things.

Part of the problem with why TLF got stuck in development hell is that it's essentially two types of game mashed up, and doing that either takes a lot of correct guesses on the first try (in terms of design), or a lot of overtime, or both.  With Spectral Empire, we're focused more on one specific genre (like we did with Bionic or AI War or Tidalis), but in a super intensive way, and with inspirations from other genres (like AI War in particular).  I'm excited about that, and I think it will lead to a less hellish development cycle at the end.  Knock on wood.

We've also very much overbudgeted the time that we think it will take to make it, by design.  We're aiming for next April, and that's probably when we will actually release 1.0 of it, but I expect that we'll be basically feature complete before the end of this year.  We'll see.  Leaving us with time for polish and whatnot in Q1 of next year, while we work on Airship Eternal with the part of our time that doesn't need to go to Spectral.

If things go to plan, then that's a lot more relaxed of a schedule, and one that winds up with much more polish at the end, too.
Title: Re: Followup to last year's AI War postmortem (now discussing Bionic, TLF, etc).
Post by: Pepisolo on July 16, 2014, 09:46:18 AM
Good read, thanks!

Oh, I wonder how many more copies Bionic Dues would have sold had it actually been called Bionic Dudes... (old testing vid from mantis that might not work via browser)

and been a bit more Cowabunga-y!
Title: Re: Followup to last year's AI War postmortem (now discussing Bionic, TLF, etc).
Post by: x4000 on July 16, 2014, 09:51:11 AM
Haha, yeah, if it had played up the humor and been called Dudes I think it would have sold better for sure.
Title: Re: Followup to last year's AI War postmortem (now discussing Bionic, TLF, etc).
Post by: mrhanman on July 16, 2014, 10:39:33 AM
I think I always called the exos "dudes" anyway.

Any one remember Bad Dudes?

Title: Re: Followup to last year's AI War postmortem (now discussing Bionic, TLF, etc).
Post by: x4000 on July 16, 2014, 10:44:55 AM
I think we all remember Bad Dudes. :)  Bionic Dues was actually intended as kind of an evocation of both that and Bionic Commando.
Title: Re: Followup to last year's AI War postmortem (now discussing Bionic, TLF, etc).
Post by: Misery on July 16, 2014, 12:04:41 PM
Hm, this was an interesting read.  It's neat to see just where the company has gone with all of these over time, and some insights on the processes behind them.  Very cool, as you guys always have my respect, and I'm glad to have been able to take part in the various betas/alphas to whatever extent.

....also I agree with what you wrote about Skyward's expansion.  I really enjoyed the heck outta that game, but that expansion.... I dont think I'll forget what the testing period for THAT was like anytime soon.   There wasnt anyone around, even here on these forums, where there's usually much interest in everything.  It was very surprising at the time, and probably made things a bit of a pain for everyone involved.   And then it came out and didn't seem to do much.   *I* thought it was pretty good, but nobody listens to me of course....

Very interesting post overall though.   It'd be nice if more developers were this open about things like this, but not many of them are, and most of those that are are all indie devs... ya sure dont see it from the big guys much.  Except when it's time for them to brag about profits, that is.
Title: Re: Followup to last year's AI War postmortem (now discussing Bionic, TLF, etc).
Post by: x4000 on July 16, 2014, 12:07:43 PM
I think it's honestly more instructive to look at the things that did NOT go well, compared to those that did go well, in the main.  I mean, both are useful, but the former cases are usually where you can spot things that are actually meaningful more easily.  It's why I focused more on those things in this particular post.
Title: Re: Followup to last year's AI War postmortem (now discussing Bionic, TLF, etc).
Post by: Sounds on July 17, 2014, 09:08:23 PM

....also I agree with what you wrote about Skyward's expansion.  I really enjoyed the heck outta that game, but that expansion.... I dont think I'll forget what the testing period for THAT was like anytime soon.   There wasnt anyone around, even here on these forums, where there's usually much interest in everything.  It was very surprising at the time, and probably made things a bit of a pain for everyone involved.   And then it came out and didn't seem to do much.   *I* thought it was pretty good, but nobody listens to me of course....

I wasn't part of the beta, but I do recall looking at a few of the screen shots and reading through the forums that it kind of unsold it for me.

However a later post of Chris' perked my interest, so I took a gamble. After playing it on the very first sitting for a a few hours  it was one of those games that just clicked for me. If there had been further expansions I would have been first in line to buy them. Sadly I was in the minority camp on this title.

Still whilst I don't play it as much as I would like to (game time is very limited), I class Skyward as my favourite Arcen title. So I'll just tip my hat and give another big thank you to Arcen for taking a chance on an odd idea and releasing it. :D

Title: Re: Followup to last year's AI War postmortem (now discussing Bionic, TLF, etc).
Post by: x4000 on July 24, 2014, 04:42:30 PM
Thank you very much!  Skyward definitely is not my favorite out of our roster, but it was incredibly fun to work on for several reasons.  It satisfied several longtime goals of mine in game design.  Making a Carcassone-like game where the pieces come to life was partially satisfied. 

Making a game where the player is their own worst enemy and they have to intentionally basically play a game of brinkmanship with themselves was another.  That's something that AAAaaaaAAa does with "kisses," and it's been something that is my own personal goal whenever I am DMing for players in an RPG or tabletop dungeon crawler (which is my preferred role at the table, as probably surprises no one).  This was a big big thing for me in game design, and I hope to revisit the concept again sometime in the future in a very different way.  But for Skyward, it really was something that I felt came together surprisingly well.  My very favorite press quote for this game, and among my favorite press quotes for all our games is "It's like playing Chess against yourself, and you're always a total asshole."  Haha.  Mission accomplished!

This was also the first game that Arcen ever did that was historically-based rather than pure fantasy or sci-fi.  So the types of research required for this game were completely different compared to things like space games (where we look at data about various planets and stars and whatnot, and various theories about future tech, etc).  Josh Knapp did the lion's share of the research here by FAR for both the base game and the expansion, and was super good at it.  He'd then present me with various options and we'd talk about them together and look at how we could tie in game mechanics to the actual historical mythological stuff.  That sort of research really drove the game design, rather than the other way around, which was very unique for us and a fun way to do things.

Incidentally, the reason that the Japanese have a metric ton of mythological creatures, but no god tokens?  The nature of their mythology.  There just aren't a lot of magical artifacts that Josh could find info about, unlike the incredible multitudes in Norse and Greek mythologies.  He was finding some, sure, but they just were thin on the ground and kind of boring, because of the way the Japanese mythologies were written.  But he had so incredibly many creatures and demigods and similar that it was just vastly more than the other cultures.  So we had the idea to make the Japanese work differently, simply because their mythology itself is different, and that was such a good decision for the game design itself.

The process was really different for making Skyward compared to our other games, in short, and I really love it for that.  It's not among my favorite tiles to play anymore because after you have a certain number of dozen hours into the game I think the concept gets kind of played out.  But that's part of where the price being so low came from, is that we knew that not only was the title quirky, but you wouldn't get 100 hours out of it, it would be more like 20.  In terms of the average player, not the extremist fans of a title, obviously.  Part of me does wonder how much money it would have made if it had been priced higher, because of course it is 1/3 the price of Valley, and 1/4 the price that TLF and AI War both were (and TLF still is).  So in terms of units sold, Skyward is actually vastly more popular than its indicated by its purely financial performance.  I think that a lot of that was people taking a happy chance on something that was small an odd as opposed to making a larger investment in something pricier and larger, though.

Anyhow, rambling, but I love each of our titles for really different reasons. :)